(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

There is much talk in the small capital of an Italian province about the peculiar family arrangements of old Signora Frola and her daughter, the wife of Ponza, a newly appointed secretary to Commendatore Agazzi, the provincial councillor. Why is Signora Frola living by herself in a fine apartment next door to the Agazzis and not with her daughter and her son-in-law? Why are Ponza and his wife living in fifth-floor tenement rooms on the edge of town? Why does Ponza visit the old lady every evening and sometimes during the day, but always by himself? Why does Signora Frola never visit her daughter, and why does her daughter, whom no one except Ponza ever sees, never visit her? Why will the old lady not even permit Signora Agazzi and her daughter to pay a social call?

While the enigma is being discussed by Agazzi, his family, and several visitors in the Agazzi parlor, Signora Frola comes in to apologize for having refused to admit the Agazzis when they came calling and also to explain why she lives apart from her daughter. She does not want to interfere, she says, in the home life of her daughter and Ponza. She lives by herself, it is true, but she is not unhappy about it; she keeps in contact with her daughter, although there are no face-to-face visits.

Just after Signora Frola leaves the gathering in the parlor, Ponza—a fierce, nervous, sinister-looking man—comes in to explain about his poor mother-in-law. The truth is that she is mad, he says. Her daughter has been dead for four years, and he married again two years later. He has prevailed upon his second wife to humor the old woman by carrying on shouted conversations with her from a fifth-floor balcony and writing notes to be let down in a basket from the balcony to the old woman on the ground.

No sooner has Ponza gone than Signora Frola returns. Although the company at first denies it, she knows what Ponza has been telling them. The sad truth, however, is that he is the mad one. The real truth, which she wishes she did not have to tell, is that when he married her young and innocent daughter he so frightened her with his passionate attentions that she had to be put into an institution for a while. When she finally returned, Ponza himself was in such a nervous state that he could not be convinced that she was his wife; she was prevailed upon to pretend that she is a second wife taking the place of the one he lost.

Before long, a plot is hatched to have Signora Frola and Ponza confront each other in the presence of Agazzi and the others in order that the truth might be uncovered. From the beginning of the gossipy, inquisitorial discussion, Lamberto Laudisi, the brother-in-law of Agazzi, has maintained that the private domestic lives of the Ponzas and Signora Frola are their own affair and should remain so. They are harming no one, and they are not seeking anyone’s aid; they should be left alone. Laudisi is...

(The entire section is 1191 words.)